Getting the Id to Go Shopping: Psychoanalysis, Advertising, Barbie Dolls, and the Invention of the Consumer Unconscious
Following the news that oniomania, otherwise known as compulsive spending or shopaholism, will be recognized as a clinical disorder in the next diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association, watchdogs of the mind-control industries have been quick to note the “coincidence” that a Stanford University research team’s recent discovery of a pharmaceutical “cure” for oniomania was funded by a pharmaceutical company.1 Compulsive shoppers, it seems, will be encouraged to make one more purchase: a daily pill to make it all better. Marketing a cure for a new disorder—itself an effect of excessive marketing—means first marketing the disorder. Some critics of the pharmaceutical companies’ power to create simultaneous supply and demand for products like the shopaholic pill have responded by advocating the more traditional and personally “empowering” recourse of psychotherapy—varieties of the “talking cure”—as the better response to oniomania. Such was the approach of the TV talk show program Oprah when it tackled compulsive spending as a self-help issue in 1994. Oprah’s guest expert was writer Neale Godfrey, coauthor of Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees (1994), who talked his audience through various cognitive and behavior-modification strategies to deal with an inability to control their spending. However, as Jane Shattuc complained of Oprah’s program in her book The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women: typically, “there was no attempt to ascertain the sources of unrestrained buying.”2
This essay revisits a forgotten episode in the cultural history of the “talking cure” when psychoanalysis was tied to compulsive spending as a patriotic duty; when Freudian analysis, conceived not as a cure but as a catalyst for unrestrained buying, was harnessed to the production of a new kind of citizen-subject, a type of what Georges Bataille called the “sovereign spender”;3 when the market research and advertising industries, falling under the spell of Freud’s “economics of the libido,” set about eroticizing commodities and addressing the consumer not as homo oeconomicus—the rational, economically self-interested decision maker of classical political economy and neoclassical economics—but as a subject driven by unconscious sexual desire. It was a period in the development of consumer culture when, to talk loosely, Freud fathered the Barbie doll and American advertisers set about getting the id, rather than the ego, to do the shopping.
The period begins—at least in my account of it—in Austria in the 1930s and officially ends in America in the 1960s—but only officially. My account of this forgotten episode in the story of Freudianism’s intercourse with consumerism focuses on the career and influence of an Austrian psychoanalyst who left Vienna in the 1930s to join the flux of European Jewish émigrés to the United States, where he would become the world’s highest paid and most (in)famous market researcher—and who meant something quite different from Oprah’s guest expert when he later commented in his autobiography: “I am interested in Money Therapy. We talk about sex much more openly today than we talk about the role money plays in our lives. An important problem that many people seem to have, at least I do, is to enjoy one’s money by spending it. . . . To enjoy expenses that are plain luxury and unnecessary may be recognized as an important experience. It could lead to a liberation from the domination of money.”4 The advocate of uninhibited spending was Dr. Ernest Dichter (1907–91), who enjoyed international notoriety in the late 1950s as the protagonist of Vance Packard’s best-selling exposé of subliminal advertising and propaganda techniques, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), but whose name has since faded from the textbooks of market research and advertising lore without (to my knowledge) ever being mentioned in histories of psychoanalysis.
Addictive shopping first entered the psychiatric textbooks in 1915 (in the eighth edition of Emil Kraepelin’s Psychiatrie, where it figures among manias such as kleptomania, pyromania, and anonymous letter writing),5 but it was only in the 1990s that it became the subject of a raft of psychological theories and therapies offering to explain and address the emotional needs and personality traits assumed to give rise to compulsive spending. Critiques of consumer culture have often called on psychoanalytic theory to explain the psychology of consumption and commodity fetishism. However, my concern in this essay is with a different aspect of the Freudianism-consumerism nexus, namely, the use of psychoanalytic theory by market researchers and advertisers themselves to construct their campaigns, design their commodities, interpellate consumers, and influence their behavior through the mass media in ways they conceived of as “social engineering.” 6In short, my concern is with the use of psychoanalysis in the discursive production of consumer subjectivity, rather than in its diagnosis or “cure.”
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- 1. The company is Forest Laboratories Inc., whose antidepressants, Celexa and Lexapro, have been tested on shopaholics at the Stanford University Medical Center. Press reportage of the research includes Anne Marie Chaker, “Do You Need a Pill to Stop Shopping?—For Antidepressant Makers, Shopaholics Are a New Market,” Wall Street Journal, January 2, 2003; and Richard Luscombe, “Anti-Depressant Drug on Offer to Shopaholics,” Scotsman, July 18, 2003, www.news.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=778492003.
- Jane M. Shattuc, The Talking Cure: TV Talk Shows and Women (New York: Routledge, 1997), 117.
- See Georges Bataille, “De Sade’s Sovereign Man,” in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights, 1986), 171; and David Bennett, “Burghers, Burglars, and Masturbators: The Sovereign Spender in the Age of Consumerism,” New Literary History 30, no. 2 (1999): 269–94.
- Ernest Dichter, Getting Motivated by Ernest Dichter: The Secret behind Individual Motivations by the Man Who Was Not Afraid to Ask “Why?” (New York: Pergamon, 1979), 139.
- Emil Kraepelin, Psychiatrie: Ein Lehrbuch Für Studierende und Ärzte (Leipzig: Barth, 1915), 1911.
- Ernest Dichter, The Strategy of Desire (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), 59.